What is Vicarious Liability?
Vicarious liability is a theory where a person is held responsible for the actions of another person.
To better understand this theory, we need to define some terms.
With these definitions, we can understand Georgia’s law of vicarious liability:
- Principal. This person or entity authorizes another to act in their place or supervises them.
- Agent. Someone who is authorized to act or supervised by the principal.
- Plaintiff. The person who is harmed by the actions of an agent.
“By definition, vicarious liability arises where the agent is the sole actor, yet the principal is liable ‘for acts not committed by [them], not accomplished at [their] direction, not aided by [their] participation, and not done with [their] knowledge.’”
In other words, a plaintiff can sue the principal for the agent’s conduct – even when the principal was not directly involved.
The best way to understand vicarious liability is through some examples.
Probably the most common case of vicarious liability comes from the employer-employee relationship. It is referred to as respondeat superior. The employer is held liable for the unlawful actions of an employee if the conduct occurs during the scope of the employee’s work.
A good example is the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In this case, the Exxon Shipping Company owned an oil tanker called the Exxon Valdez. On March 24, 1989, the ship crashed into a well-known reef. The collision gashed the ship’s hull and caused the spillage of nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters off the coast of Alaska. At the time, it was the largest oil spill in American history. The oil slick polluted the waters along 1300 miles of coastline. Hundreds of thousands of whales, otters, and seals died.
It turns out that the captain of the Exxon Valdez had been drinking when the ship hit the reef. He also let an unqualified third mate steer the enormous vessel.
The employer, Exxon Shipping Company, was held liable for the misconduct of its employee, the ship captain. The company paid approximately $2 billion in cleanup costs and nearly as much in habitat restoration and personal damages.
A joint venture is a legal organization involving a short-term partnership between two persons that jointly undertake a business for mutual profit. Generally, each member of the joint venture is held vicariously liable for the misconduct of the other.
For example, Wayne and Jody form a joint venture to establish a chain of ice cream shops. They buy a company sedan with joint venture funds to deliver ice cream. While Jody is driving the sedan to a meeting with Wayne, Jody hits a pedestrian and seriously injures her. The pedestrian suffers severe back injuries and is left unable to walk on her own. She sues both Wayne and Jody. If she establishes that Jody was at fault, both Wayne and Jody may be liable for her injuries. Wayne is vicariously responsible for Jody’s wrongdoing.
Parents and Children
Vicarious liability can also be applicable in the parent-child context. Under Georgia law, the family purpose doctrine states that a parent is responsible for the misconduct of their child when that child is doing something for the comfort and pleasure of the parent.
For example, say it’s the holidays, and many people have elaborate decorations on and around their houses. Also, there’s been a snow event. The combination of snow and holiday decorations puts Phyllis in a festive mood. She wants to enjoy the winter ambiance and view the holiday decorations on display in a wealthy community nearby. She asks her 16-year-old son, Michael, to drive her to the neighborhood so they can cruise around and enjoy the scene. Michael readily agrees.
Michael drives his mom Phyllis to the houses, and they enjoy the holiday displays. However, Michael enjoys them too much and carelessly lets his attention wander from the road. He strikes and severely injures Kevin, an elderly man crossing the street.
Michael is only 16, so he has few assets and is, therefore, “judgment proof.” However, Phyllis is rich. Kevin sues Phyllis for his injuries, even though she wasn’t driving the car. Under the family purpose doctrine, Phyllis might be liable for Kevin’s injury because Michael was driving for the comfort and pleasure of his mother.
Vicarious liability is usually based on the principal-agent relationship, especially the employer-employee relationship. But Georgia law extends vicarious liability, in certain circumstances, to independent contractors.
A principal might be liable for the acts of their independent contractors if:
- The employer knows that the work to be carried out is dangerous;
- The employer directed the contractor to do the actions; or
- The employer later approved the action that caused the damages.
Georgia law calls this version of vicarious liability “imputable negligence.”
Legal Counsel is Recommended
If you’re injured by an employee or other agent who engages in misconduct, you may have a claim for damages against the employer or principal. Our personal injury lawyers in Atlanta are ready to help you with your claim and give you the representation you deserve.